‘We needed coffee but…’, Matthew Welton, Carcanet, 96pp, £9.95 ‘Voyaging Out’, Peter Abbs, Salt, 80pp, £12.99

‘As I listen to a poem unfold in my ear it becomes clear that for every line I hear there are more lines resonating in the same field of meaning,’ says Peter Gizzi, a North American poet about his own practice. That is the experience to expect while reading Matthew Welton’s formally inventive second collection, ‘We needed coffee but…’ (the title is longer than this; indeed it is the whole poem of which this is the first phrase). For one extreme example, a set of poems called ‘Six poems by themselves’ offers no words apart from the, consequently very important, titles. Instead, there are drawn lines making ruled pages, looking like an adapted exercise book. Here are two verses of one of these, ‘The poem so itself’:

Unexpectedly, reading this, I heard words in lines that I superimposed myself. More than most poems in the collection, these speechless ones suffer by being partially quoted, but you get the flavour. Welton’s poems throughout offer rules, games and reasons to revisit them. Each time you do, you understand more but not in the way that is usually meant by poetry readers – you see more about how the world is constructed visually and textually and you start to feel its thinness and your own. And then you start trying to grow out of and round the rules.

Throughout, the sentence dominates lines and poems. ‘Dr Suss’, for example: the long, final section has thirteen parts, each a prose chunk, some more than a page long. These dense sections are composed of repeating sentences. The two sections that are made up of speech quotes are laid out as lines. Each sentence repeats a base set of words, changing a proper name in alphabetical order and an adjective or adverb. There is an immediate music to this. On first reading, I enjoyed that lulling chorus. On second reading, the chorus was dead, a stuck tape, but then I began to see patterns on the page, seductive swirls of capital letters. I compulsively read the set several times trying to spot or create arcane correspondences:

Sherpa Tensing stands up from the piano, says something quiet, and walks outside. Sid James stands up from the hospital bed, says some- thing quiet, and walks outside. Socrates stands up from the backgammon board…

Even the effect of justifying these lines is eerily suggestive of meaning. Though this form can make the sentence look like a row of ducks in a shooting gallery with the poet taking aim at every third duck, it is one Welton used to extraordinary effect in the title poem of his first collection, ‘The Book of Matthew’. Dr Suss’ is less brilliant but allows for witty observation of the world and a strong sense of the poet’s voice, though there is no personal narrator.

Elsewhere, Welton is a master of simile and can give tone its perfectly realised materialisation, making satisfying, sonorous sentences such as these from ‘Virtual airport 1’: ‘The colour of light is like new aluminium. A sugary orange-smell carries into the air.’ This poem, a sequence in twenty-four prose sections, is a moving analysis of, among other sense impressions, how light is experienced at an airport and, metaphorically, how we search for spiritual existence in its absence, shown here in section six:

There is a sad kind of surprise in the way the steel-colour light takes up the space between the cafeteria and the corridor, giving an even emphasis to the low metal banisters, the pigeon-colour flooring, the wall lamps, the mirroring, the open double doors.

The space itself has the feel of something imagined or something not quite recognised, like getting to your destination and feeling you are still in the place you departed from. Or like returning home and finding no house there, no street, no pavement lined with hedges, your town not even mentioned on the regional travel map.

Welton draws on tradition to make his postmodern poems. Nonsense poetry prefigures his delight in cooking language and it has a long British history. In the seventeenth century, John Taylor wrote, in ‘Barbarian Verses’:

Vaprosh fogh stinkquash slavorumques fie fominoshte Spitterspawlimon, loatherso hem halkish spewriboshte

These nonsense lines are not unlike lines in Welton’s ‘Four-letter words – vier’:

slts quts shts smts slts shts crts twts frts drts slss slss quss shss smss slss shss crss twss frss drss slrk slrk qurk shrk smrk slrk shrk crrk twrk frrk

Whether Welton chose to generate such lines from a computer or invent them freehand is not important, in my view, though it is interesting since poets use computers to write anyway and the use of such a comprehensive tool points up the links between poetry and visual art. The link is clear in this collection from the cover, with its textual art, onward. Concrete poetry, popular in the mid twentieth century among visual artists as well as poets, stands behind ‘Six poems by themselves’.

While many of the poems use repetition of a base unit, suggesting the current interest in fractals as recurring units of composition, repetition is an ancient tool with which to deliver contemporary trance states. Welton makes of it the same witty response to vacuous but powerful circumstance that poets have made for centuries. But overwhelmingly this collection reflects its own time as its games make, not metaphor, but meaning itself. It is a worthy follow-up to Welton’s acclaimed first collection.

If ‘We needed coffee but…’ enacts meditations, addressing our need to transcend even words, Peter Abbs’ collection ‘Voyaging Out’ discusses such needs. Abbs, like Welton, is a university teacher of creative writing and has published books on the theory of education and culture as well as several previous collections of poetry. He celebrates the traditions of poetry; phrases from previous poets and thinkers haunt his lines. His poems are superb creations of sound as in this evocation of a happy marriage:

And may there always be a fountain chuckling with water.

In its kitchen may the rough dough of experience be beaten

and tossed and thrown into an oven for the bread of life.

In its bedroom may love’s smooth palm soothe the ache

of sinew and bone, and ease the knowledge of death.

Abbs, a well known proponent of eco-poetry, is happier in the rural world than the urban and uses its symbols to suggest emotions, joy, fear, awe. Roses, seabirds and toppling towers summon a lost environment where a reader with literary knowledge would feel at home. Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz’ exquisite seventeenth century poetry springs to mind. But Abbs does not address the educated only; he has written about the lack of books in his own working class background. His spartan schooling did not offer the cultural experience he grabbed for himself in his mid teens. While his poetry is always accessible and he condemns Modernism for unforgivable elitism, he’s no everyday poet either. Describing Larkin in ‘From my University Room’, he writes:

In the middle of his reading I think I would have left disclaiming the chaffing style – where ash is always more substantial than ardent flame, and the eagle’s febrile wings are clipped at birth.

Abbs very much wants the eagle to fly. That is the crux of his poetry. He engages with the reader as a priest might hope to draw the soul to God. His poem ‘A Brief Lesson on Poetry’ could be called ‘A Brief Lesson on the Spiritual Life’:

a poem

a kinesia of swallows on a darkening lake… to see

in ordinary events the epic of life… and something else…not easy to state…

against the pragmatic grain of things…

the power of


Abbs uses traditional linguistic devices such as, here, the ellipsis to aid semantic tussles with the incomprehensible. The union of soul (or self) and body in the natural world is Abbs’ passion as it is a reference point for more contemporary poets than you might think. Linda Gregg, a North American poet, sums it up in her poem ‘God’s Places’:

The soul is a place and love must find its way there.

Abbs’ poetry is also political; he would wish to be a prophet who will lead us away from ecological disaster, if we only heed his warnings. Otherwise, you may end up in hell, graphically described in his version of Dante:

Next we came to the burning sand. Soldiers wept there;

some were crawling on the ground,

others paced about shouting orders to the wind. Flares arced

through the air. The heat was so great I was afraid my camouflage

would catch aflame.

Later, the poet’s Master and guide through hell describes, but does not name, the commanders of this war:

Yet it perplexes me, even as these two men stand and observe these scenes

they do not seem ashamed. They are arrogant as Capaneus who mocked God on the walls of Thebes. He stopped speechless for the sudden reek of burning oil had made him wince and choke.

Six jets raged overhead; far away, another town dissolved in smoke.

These disturbing versions of Dante reflect contemporary experience and benefit from their strong narrative material. A sense of lived experience gives many others of Abbs’ potentially chilly poems energy and warmth:

I’m trudging through mounting drifts, a child again,

and there’s not a familiar thing to name or praise

and all my zig-zag steps are quickly filling in

and the wind upon my neck is a spectral blade of ice

and the leaden sky is running out of light

and there’s nothing here – but white on white on white.

I say chilly not only because of his description of snow but because of Abbs’ usual rejection of our cultural norms and artefacts, those familiar places such as airports that Welton tries to witness. The danger is, as Abbs says, that ‘It’s hard for us to grasp transcendence’. One could also argue that his stance of prophet is a Romantic cliché or point to tired adjectives – gulls scream, stars are far flung, seas are uncharted, wives dote. It is part of Abbs’ technique, however, to take what is long-used and cherish it and he might say that trying to make everything new is a curse of Modernism. He is most successful, though, when he ascends into his own impressive originality, as here in ‘Unending Journey’:

For more than two thousand years this head has been dreaming you. Tilted back in the sand off Alexandria somewhere, submerged under the ebb and flow, the stray ephemera of weed


Even so, it has dreamt of you, longed for you –

as today you sit at the computer deleting word after word after word,

not this, not this, sensing the infinite flaring in each rush of wind

as it rattles your office window; and huge white clouds still billowing in…

Is the fine art of Voyaging Out beautiful anachronism or a powerful evocation of the full human being we no longer value? Maybe the point is not to make such separations. After reading Abbs’ poems, you might discover in yourself a longing for the freedom that is locked into bone and stone and used to be called soul.

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